Running a small business can be hard yakka.
It takes grit, determination and the understanding that success does not magically happen over night.
And who better would understand this than those who have experienced it — and succeeded.
Business Insider spoke to successful Australian entrepreneurs to find out the advice they have to help others on the journey of growing and developing a small business into a booming enterprise.
Our contributing entrepreneurs come from a range of industries and have wise words to help you steer your small business in the right direction.
Here is what they said:
Eddie Machaalani, Co-founder and CEO of Bigcommerce:
Running a small business can be challenging, especially if you’re a first time entrepreneur or business owner. You can greatly improve your chances of success by talking to those that have previously built successful businesses before and learn from their mistakes and successes. A good business coach can also be incredibly helpful to help guide you through your journey and hold you accountable for the things you know you need to do, but are probably not doing.
Gemma Munro, Managing Director of Inkling Women:
I have two pieces of advice for business owners. First, well-roundedness is entirely overrated. So many people make business decisions based on filling gaps in their resumes. Instead, find out what it is you love to do and do it as much as humanly possible. This is how we achieve our full potential – by focusing on our strengths and utilising them as much as possible, never by fixing our weaknesses. When you base your business around your strengths you never have to worry about your competitors – you’ll outstrip them by miles.
Second, seek and listen openly to others’ advice, but only take the advice on board if it feels right to you. Others will mean well and absolutely have your best interests at heart, but will give advice based on their experience, their hopes and their fears. You know your business better than anyone else – trust your instincts.
Mat Peterson, Founder of Shiny Things:
Foster innovation in your workforce. A business will only thrive when you’ve got a team who feel comfortable with critiquing and challenging decisions in an open environment where they’re given the freedom to innovate and create change. This in turn means you, as a leader, will make majority of your decisions correctly, allowing you to stay in business and potentially even dominate the space.
Daniel Flynn, Co-founder and Managing Director of Thankyou Group:
A good idea doesn’t guarantee success – everyone has one. The value is in the execution of that idea and that’s where your focus needs to be. You’ll be surrounded by people who always ask of you, “But what will happen if you fail?” Instead, ask yourself “What if we succeed?” This is why it’s important to surround yourself with a great team who support each other. The people and culture are the lifeblood of your business, so be sure to devote the deserved energy and time. Ban the word “budget” from initial marketing and creative meetings – it limits brainstorming and keeps everyone thinking small. Always start with the thought: “If we had no limitations, we would…”. Then work from there and remind yourself everyday of those big objectives. Finally, excuses just give you permission not to succeed – don’t make them.
Martin Halpen, Founder of The Fruit Box:
Honesty. Definitely honesty. Having a culture of honesty is critical, it’s the building block and foundation to everything we do in business… As long as you’ve got honesty amongst the culture of your workplace, that helps you build trust and allows you as a business owner to take your foot off the accelerator and let people around you shine, rather than suppress them or strip them away of their individuality.
Love your customer. People look at their customers as a challenge and sometimes adopt an “us against them” mentality, but I think the relationship between business and its customers is like a marriage. You can decide to either be in a marriage of convenience or in a marriage of love, so you absolutely need to find a way to love your customer, and you’ll find that positive business outcomes follow as a result of that.
Karen Lawson, CEO of CareerOne:
The most challenging area for small business is to ensure that you have access to great thought leadership. It’s impossible to expect one individual to have the human and mental capital required in all areas of business. You ARE amazing, but be honest and understand what you are good at. Outsource via the task economy or “rent a brain” from other people! Choose your thinking partners wisely, don’t choose echo chambers, but others who will challenge, build and breakdown your ideas or pull them apart from different angles. You will be amazed that once you reach out others will be very supportive and you can build a collaborative working group of thinkers to help you on your journey.
Greg Taylor, Founder of Clipp.co:
Ensure that you are always ahead of the curve. Actively seek fresh approaches and rationalisations to go back to both existing and prospective clients. Identify the problems your product solves as well as pain-points it addresses for your customers.
Alec Lynch, Founder and CEO of DesignCrowd.com.au:
I have five tips for other entrepreneurs / small business owners:
1. Think big. Whether you’re planning a new business or running an existing business: think big, think global.
2. Never stop testing. If you never stop testing new things and your website, your business will never stop improving.
3. Faster is better than slow.
4. If you have an idea, start today. It’s never been easier to start a business. All you need is a laptop and a credit card.
5. Never, never, never give up on your dream.
Gabby Leibovich, Co-founder of The Catch Group:
Get a good PR company. Building our brands through PR has been one of the best investments we have made. In the early days I use to do my own PR and it was hard work approaching media and pitching in our story. A good PR company will pay for itself in multiples by way of increased exposure, sales and great advice.
Ben Duncan, Founder and CTO of Atmail.com:
Focus on one product and do it well. I’ve been running Atmail for 15 years, and with constraints like budget, staff and revenue, one important lesson I have learnt is to focus on one product and do it extremely well.
Staying the course with your primary product is critical to the success of your business and growth. Focusing all your effort on your niche, refining the product to perfection, and focusing your time and energy in the core product gives your business a higher chance of succeeding.
Rob Cameron, Senior Product Manager of MYOB:
I have always taken a very conservative approach to my start-up businesses. As I think most business people would agree, accumulating any wealth in life is difficult and to lose it on an ill-considered business idea can be a body blow. Therefore, I have a cardinal rule that unless I personally know five people that really, really want to buy the “product”, then I won’t move forward.
Another key observation is developing the product is only half the battle, especially in the technology sector. The challenge of distribution is often chronically underestimated and what brings most people undone. There is no shortage of alternative ways that people can spend their money, so you need to have an efficient and reliable way of selling your product.
Bertrand De Oliveira, Co-Founder at Touch Payments:
Be persistent and find a mentor early. In start-ups and small businesses you have to move fast, often with limited knowledge or information to make the perfect decisions. Finding a mentor early, who’s been there before and has experience in the areas you don’t, can really help guide you through important decisions and help you prioritise what’s important. As an entrepreneur you’re constantly thinking ahead and it’s very easy to loose focus on your core goal. At the same time, be persistent and learn from your mistakes; don’t make the same mistake twice! Never give up, even if someone tells you “no” or “it won’t work” a few times, as you improve your product or service, keep coming back to try to convince him. Be careful though, you have to have a good sense when you are pushing it too far.
Luke Smorgon, Director, b2cloud:
Be prepared to walk away. Many people get too emotionally invested in their small business venture without focusing on growth and profitability. Everyone has the opportunity to be a successful entrepreneur, but the majority of people aren’t cut out for it.
If you’re dedicated wholeheartedly and given yourself the best chance to succeed, but can’t turn much of a profit after time, something has failed. For some people this might be time to get a full-time job which would actually be more lucrative and less stressful than their fledgling small business, for others it could be time to pivot their model and look at other opportunities you can bring to market that have a higher chance of success.
Cyndi O’Meara, Founder of Changing Habits:
Loving what you do and doing it because you are driven by a passion is key to having fun and creating a successful business. Being persistent and consistent in your message and your actions is key to survival. Business, no matter what size, is about culture and trust. Build a culture that aligns with what you do and become a trusted leader in your field and community.
After 25 years in the field of health, nutrition, education and food, this is exactly how my business has evolved. I love what I do – my passion is driven from being the healthiest person I can be despite my genetic potential, and then educating my family, friends and community. Due to being consistent in my message, despite sometimes personal attack, opposition and criticism, I’ve grown a trusted clientele. Our culture in all that we do including our business which is based on education, health, happiness and support.
Gen George, CEO and founder of OneShift:
Thoroughly research your competition. This should be a continuing commitment from which you are constantly learning. Understanding who your competitors are and what they are offering, helps to make what you’re offering stand out. This enables you to set your prices competitively and help respond to rival marketing campaigns with your own initiatives.
Stuart Marburg, CEO of MessageMedia:
When developing a product, deciding on a policy or making a decision I always ask my team – pretend you are our customer – and ask questions like:
Would the customer understand what we are trying to communicate, will “John” product manager at ANZ understand what our change means to them; how will this update provide a better experience for one of our doctors patients, or to a banking customer?
Have we communicated it clearly; is what we are developing actually valued by our customers? Does this helping our customer to deliver business efficiencies, improve customer service and save money through our business SMS messaging.
Andy Sheats, CEO and founder of health.com.au:
Look at the long term view of your industry – whatever it is – to make sure you can draw the map to a sustainable future. Where is the internet going to squeeze or help you? What is the current or potential value add that will keep customers and at least some profit coming to you? Can you get to sufficient scale to be cost competitive?
These questions are hard and you may not want to face them. But it may also open up new opportunities as you adapt yourself and your business the changes that are sweeping our economy.
Tristan Sternson, Managing Director of InfoReady:
Don’t waste time failing, do it quickly, learn from it, and use it as the basis to strengthen your business. If you are unsure of whether to try something new, remember that innovation is the new black, and to stay ahead in the market place you need to continually innovate. This applies to all businesses. We treat everything like a game of poker, spend a little money to see the first three cards, then decide if you want to pay to see any more once you have better visibility of the direction.
Andre Eikmeier, CEO and co-founder of Vinomofo:
There are plenty of things that as a small business you can’t do, that a large business can. Don’t get caught up in those things.
Work out what you can do that large business can’t, and hone those as strengths. Usually, it’ll focus around things like customer experience, personalisation and agility.
Look to collaborations for those things you can’t do on your own, because you’re small and you’re probably already doing the job of 10.
But differentiate yourself through the things you can do better than anyone else, and get that message out there. People respond to that – your market will respond to that.
Matt Dyer, Founder of EatNow:
Think Big. When I started EatNow.com.au I underestimated the market for ordering takeaway food online. For this reason I didn’t try and raise money for a few years. Don’t make the mistake I did, think big, raise money early and grow fast.
Stay Focussed. While launching EatNow.com.au, I was also working on another business. It took me a year to realise that this was only taking away from EatNow. There are always a thousand ideas to work on, find the things that work and spend all your time on them.
Don’t Give Up. It was a slow start and took a long time to get traction. My business partner quit after one year as the business still could not afford to pay us salaries. Three years later the business is still growing fast.
Kate Troup, Naturopath & Founder of W8less:
Given that my business all about helping people get and stay healthy, my advice is this: Make time to look after your body, or your body will make time for you. Burnout is a real risk if you’re not mindful of your health, and as a small business owner, you simply can’t afford to get sick. Running a business takes energy, passion and motivation and good health is the foundation on which these traits are based. Make time to eat good food, exercise, get out into the sunshine, learn to meditate and most importantly, sleep! Insomnia, fatigue, irritability, digestive problems and recurrent infections are all early warning signs that your body is overloaded. Making time in your day now to look after yourself could save you weeks or months of time later down the track.
Nick Bell, Owner and MD of Web Marketing Experts:
1. Be aggressive. Slow and steady doesn’t always win the race. Have a sense of urgency, get things done now, not later.
2. If you have competitors, see what they are doing and better it. You don’t need to re-invent the wheel, just improve it!
3. Blame is for under achievers! Winners accept they made a mistake, rectify it and move on.
4. When getting started, focus on one business and nail it.
5. Most of important of all, FOCUS and work your ass off!
Dean Ramler, CEO and cofounder of Milan Direct:
Expect and learn to thrive on the challenges. Many people think being your own boss and running a business is easy… As all small business owners would know, this is not the case. I have come to learn that I will be faced with challenges, daily. It is how you respond to the challenges that set apart the winners from the losers. Take challenges head on, never be surprised and know that you and your company can only become stronger by overcoming a challenge. At Milan Direct we have seen it all. From one of our superstar marketing managers being deported (due to visa issues), to a container of chairs arriving in hessian bags instead of boxes…
When people copy you, take it as a compliment. Just about all of our competitors have copied our website’s design and content. Instead of getting angry we take this as a compliment. After all, we would much rather people be copying us than another company as it means we are leading the pack. Plus, as an innovator and pioneer in your market, people cannot copy what you are doing in the future!
Jackie Maxted, Founder and Managing Director of beautydirectory, beautyheaven and homeheaven:
My key piece of advice is to make sure you’re passionate about what you’re doing. Passion will drive your business forward and help you through the difficult times. Successful businesses don’t just happen overnight (ours certainly didn’t!) and you’ll have some dark days where you just want to throw it all in, but those are the times where you need to focus on the small wins and the passion you have for your business.
It’s also really important to have integrity in your business – in the relationships you create but also in the work that you do and the people you hire. That integrity will be replicated, not just in how you’re treated but also in the business culture that you create.
Sam Chandler, Founder and CEO of Nitro:
Decide whether you want to be a small business or a high-growth company. They are different things. It’s not that one is better than the other — they are simply different. A high-growth company is typically going after a large, global market and actively trying to become a big company. A small business is normally going after a smaller, more localised market, and probably not trying to become the next Google.
One key difference between the two types of business is your attitude to investment. You’re probably going to need to sell equity to venture capitalists to raise money if you’re a small company going after a big, hyper-competitive market. But if you’re not planning on “getting big”, you may want to try hard to retain complete ownership of your company.
Whichever kind of small business you’re going to be – make sure you know which one it is and make decisions about your equity accordingly.
Chris Ryan, CEO of Strike Group:
At Strike, we follow the mantra of having a hard-working team, being proactive, being customer focused, taking big steps and trusting one’s own judgement.
Along with my co-founder, Adam Rockett, we started the business when I was just 18 years old and together we have managed to build a technology empire which spans across 35 employees, 5 cities and 4 countries. Being successful in the highly-competitive, cut-throat industry of technology is difficult but with the right technology, manufacturing and personnel, success becomes achievable. Our dream of becoming a successful technology company has been realised as a result of pure hard work and innovation.
Bob Cart, Chairman and CEO of RayGen Resources:
The key to success is know your customer. RayGen’s solar power technology is arguably greener than most, but we hardly talk about that. What we do talk about is developing the world’s lowest cost energy because it resonates with what our customers want. Our team might be driven by the need to save the environment, but our customers want to cut costs. Knowing your customers’ needs means you can give them what they want. Equally important is don’t run out of money. Undercapitalised companies don’t do good work and you’re not doing good work, you don’t last. You’ve got to know every grant, meet all the right investors, and spend every dollar strategically.